Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree, and a certain level of anxiety is normal, even helpful. Anxiety works as our body’s warning signal in response to dangerous, stressful or unfamiliar situations. Problematic anxiety happens because your brain thinks there might be danger, even when there is no danger present. For people suffering from this kind of anxiety, the constant worry and tension can leave them feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and feeling like they have no control over their emotions.
One of our clients described her anxiety as, “I start thinking about things, and then I freak out because I can’t do anything and then I shut down and try to distract myself. I feel stuck and helpless and then I get mad or sad that I can’t do anything about it. I get upset because this happens to me and other people don’t have this problem. It gets worse drowning in my thoughts so I’ll try to take a nap otherwise I start to get a headache.”
Anxiety in adolescents has been on the rise since 2012. It can be difficult for anyone to deal with but for teenagers, academic and social stress, along with the rapid-fire changes that come with growing up can cause anxiety to become a chronic condition that interferes with school, sports, friends and family. On average, 1 in 5 teenagers experiences excessive anxiety.
Identifying the Signs
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that symptoms of anxiety typically include excessive fears and worries, feelings of inner restlessness, and excessive vigilance. Many teens describe feelings of continual nervousness, restlessness, or extreme stress. Our clients report feeling like they can’t turn off their brains, that the thoughts and worries are non stop. In social settings, anxious teens may seem overly dependent, withdrawn, or uneasy. They may be distracted by unrealistic concerns about social competence and likability.
Teenagers who suffer from excessive anxiety experience a broad range of physical symptoms as well. They may experience muscle tension, stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue. Teens may sweat, hyperventilate, tremble, startle easily and complain of a rapid heartbeat. Some teenagers with anxiety can also develop mood disorders or eating disorders. Teens who experience persistent anxiety may also experience suicidal feelings or engage in self-destructive behaviors; these situations require immediate attention and treatment. Anxious teens may also use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate or self-soothe or develop rituals in an effort to reduce or prevent anxiety.
Dealing with Anxiety
While anxiety may go away in its own, more often than not it requires fighting back against the negative self-talk and learning skills to cope with the symptoms. At Life Insight, we work with a lot of anxious teens (and adults) and we start by sharing with them five strategies to reduce their anxiety:
No caffeine – Your sympathetic nervous is constantly revved when you’re anxious and caffeine only adds to the problem by creating more energy in your body. Caffeine also inhibits the calming neurotransmitter GABA. GABA soothes anxious brain activity and acts as a block for adrenaline. It’s probably no surprise then that anxiety is associated with low levels of GABA. So, cut way back on soda, non-herbal tea and coffee and stay away from specific caffeine-laden energy drinks and pre-workout supplements.
Good Nutrition – Your body needs nutritional support to grow and do all things required n an active teen;s life, but especially during times of stress when our bodies are working extra hard to cope with stressors. Give you body good, whole foods, and make sure you are eating your fruits and veggies, which contain essential vitamins and minerals like magnesium and omega 3 fatty acids, and cut back on simple carbs, fried food and sugar.
Exercise – Talk a long walk, ride a bike, get your body moving, preferably outdoors. The positive effects of exercise on mental health are proven and powerful. Plus, moderate exercise helps burn off all those stress hormones that anxiety creates and stores in your body. According to a few studies, regular exercise works as well as medication for some people to reduce symptoms of anxiety, and the effects can be long lasting. Thirty minutes of exercise can help alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular schedule may significantly reduce them over time. Exercise also helps us get our minds off the other thoughts that are bouncing around in our heads.
Mindfulness – There is a mountain of evidence that says mindfulness quiets anxiety in the brain by primarily teaching the brain to be in the present moment rather than worrying about tomorrow. Journaling, yoga, tai-chi, prayer and meditation are all great mindful activities. Yoga in particular has been shown to raise GABA in the bloodstream. A couple of good phone apps to help you get started with mindfulness are Headspace and Calm.
Breathe – Deep belly breathing with a concentration on the exhale engages the parasympathetic nervous system which helps reduce feelings of anxiousness in the moment. Breathe in through your nose while lifting your chest for 5 counts. Exhale through your mouth while pushing your belly out for 8 counts. Repeat slowly for at least five breaths. A great app for sending you reminders to stop and take some deep breaths is called Breathe.
Sleep – How many teens today are getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep a night? Sleep deprivation is a chronic stressor to both our brains and bodies and the only cure is more sleep! Studies have shown that a lack of sleep increases anxiety and distress, especially if you’re anxious to begin with. Pulling an all-nighter to study for the test you’re feeling anxious about will only make you more anxious. So go to bed! Turn off the Netflix and get the rest your body and brain need to heal, to feel calmer and more capable of dealing with life.
These are some of the basic steps that may help keep anxiety at bay and quiet your brain. If these steps are not enough to keep anxiety under control consider speaking with a professional counselor. Therapy can be a very effective way to talk about the anxiety you’re experiencing while working on proven solutions to help you feel better quickly.
We understand that anxiety can look and feel different for teens. Our team at Life Insight is here to help adults and adolescents manage anxiety. Chronic or debilitating anxiety doesn’t have to be part of growing up and the skills teens learn today can help pave the way for more successful adulthood.